It's Raining Tweets: Severe Weather Reports Come to Twitter

/ Source: OurAmazingPlanet

Don't retire your weather radio just yet — but a new way to get weather reports is taking social media by storm.

From YouTube videos of tornadoes to Facebook status updates about the rain, people are chatty about the weather on social networks. The National Weather Service (NWS) wants to harness these amateur reports — so in an experimental project that's nearly a year old, the NWS has been scanning tweets to collect storm reports.

The idea for the project bubbled up over a year ago when Tim Brice, a NWS meteorologist in El Paso, Texas, noticed that people were frequently using the popular social network Twitter to send messages (known on Twitter as tweets) about the weather.

"I thought, 'you know, everyone likes to tweet about the weather, it would be nice if we could harness that in some way,'" Brice told OurAmazingPlanet.

Traditionally storm reports were only accepted from the roughly 100,000 trained storm reporters around the country. But there's an army of Twitter users that could help the NWS get storm reports even faster.

"If you've got big hail pounding your house or trees knocked over in your yard, there's no reason you can't report that," Brice said.

The trick is to filter the storm tweets by location. If a person in Arizona searches Twitter for only the words "flood" or "hail," they might get reports from Bangladesh rather than reports near their house.

The great thing about Twitter, Brice said, is that users with smartphones can add their location to tweets through so-called geotagging. The NWS can then pin each tweet to a point on a map, which helps meteorologists hone in on the severe weather.

Yet tweets are often frivolous, so in order to filter out tweets about a sunny afternoon from tweets about funnel clouds, the NWS is using a device well-known to tweeters — the hashtag. Simply add "#wxreport" to a tweet, along with a few other basics, such as the kind of weather and the time, and someone at the NWS will see the tweet (Example: #wxreport Hail 3/4 inch in diameter at 4:25 p.m.).

Many Twitter users don't have a geotagging option, but there's still a way to be specific in a severe weather tweet. Follow the format "#wxreport WW your location WW your significant weather report" (Example: #wxreport WW 1289 W Oakridge Circle, St Louis, MO WW 6.0" new snow as of 1 pm).

Examples of location can include anything from latitude and longitude to a ZIP code. To tweet about statewide severe weather, use the two-letter state abbreviation followed by "wx" (Example: for severe weather in Alabama, use #ALwx).

Severe weather to report includes wind damage, hail, tornadoes and funnel clouds, flooding, snowfall, freezing rain or dense fog.

Anyone can view the reports by searching for #wxreport on Twitter. The severe weather tweets are also plotted on a map that constantly reloads to make it easier for meteorologists to analyze the latest information.

During the experimental period, all tweets are being carefully monitored to make sure they are accurate and up-to-date.

Reach OurAmazingPlanet staff writer Brett Israel at Follow him on Twitter @btisrael.